As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant in The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John DeMarco, Experian’s SVP of Automotive.
In his role, John is responsible for driving revenue growth for Experian’s Automotive business unit. This includes managing the sales team, overseeing sales strategy, operational plans and execution. With more than 30 years in sales and sales leadership, John has a long history of success in the automotive industry, with previous roles at CDK Global and Ford, among other companies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have a passion for the automotive industry, and always have. I started my career as a customer service representative at Ford and worked my way into other roles with the company. I’ve changed industries a couple times, but something always draws me back in to automotive. I was at CDK Global for 20 years in a variety of roles, ultimately leading strategy and sales teams, prior to coming to Experian in 2017. In the nearly five years I’ve been with Experian, the automotive industry has faced numerous challenges, but I truly enjoy being able to help the industry face those challenges through the power of data. Ultimately, data has been a constant throughout my career — no matter what company I was working for, data enabled strategic decision-making.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Like anyone that has been selling for a period of time, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. The most memorable was not exactly funny, at least not at the time. I was a brand-new salesman, working my first large competitive takeaway. During the closing meeting, my contact told me I had won the business and he gave me a letter of intent. I was excited and started dreaming of the commission I would be earning, so much so, that I went out on the weekend and bought a new set of golf clubs. Monday rolled around and I went back to get the contract signed only to find out the incumbent vendor came in after me and re-signed their client.
I was devastated but learned many lessons. First, a deal is never done, even after a signature. You must continue to work to earn someone’s business, especially with great service. Secondly, golf is the most frustrating game ever invented and this story is another reason I don’t play much.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been blessed to have many great mentors in my career, so it is difficult to pick just one. Many provided encouragement and sound advice when needed. As I look back, I vividly recall one thing my first boss at CDK said to me. I was very new to the business and we were at our very first national kickoff meeting. It was a spectacular event and I remember sitting next to him, watching the SVP of Sales at the time, give a great presentation. My boss leaned in and said, “That will be you someday. You will be up on stage leading this sales team.” That wasn’t my aspiration at the time, but as I continued to have larger roles, his words stayed with me. Because Ben saw something in me and was willing to say it, it helped give me the confidence to take bigger roles.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
At Experian, we unlock the power of data to create opportunities for people, business and society. Focusing on the automotive side of things, our data has applications in numerous aspects of the car-buying process. From helping marketers find the right audiences, to helping lenders assess risk effectively, to giving consumers insights on vehicle history; data should drive every decision within the automotive industry.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Sometimes data can be overwhelming because there’s so many data sets and sources, it can be hard to know what data will be the most helpful. That’s where we come in — we make data understandable and actionable. One way we do this is how we help automotive marketers. Our privacy-first marketing data helps marketers identify the right potential customers, the messages that will resonate, and the right channels to reach them. This helps bring people into showrooms, and, in the digitized world we’re now operating in, drive them to websites, even starting the transaction process online. This is a positive for consumers, too, because it means they’re seeing more relevant, tailored ads, which is a better marketing experience, overall.
Additionally, in the last year we’ve seen many automotive dealers focus on optimizing their online vehicle listings, and we were able to help with the inclusion of a vehicle history report. AutoCheck vehicle history reports include things like number of owners, any vehicle incidents, and more. This helps consumers make the most informed decision while shopping for a car online, without needing to ask additional questions of the dealer.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Digitization has been a big disrupter for the industry. While many correctly say this started years ago, it was accelerated by COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, there were some online offerings for consumers looking to purchase a vehicle; but when showrooms were shuttered, things like online vehicle listings and underwriting capabilities became necessities to keep business moving forward. A recent Cox Automotive study found that now, coming out of the pandemic, consumer’s expectations during the car-buying process have changed, with consumers looking to leverage digital offerings. What’s interesting is that heavy digital buyers, meaning they completed 51% of steps entirely online, had a higher overall satisfaction rate at 77%, compared to 70% for light digital users (0–20% of steps entirely online).
This demonstrates that the automotive industry will not be going back to the way things were. To be successful, industry players need to have options available to meet customers where they are, whether that’s in a showroom, on a website, in an app, or a hybrid approach where they start the process online and then finish it in the showroom.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
With the onset of the pandemic, we immediately began to focus on the new challenges our clients were facing and how we could help solve them. One challenge that came to the forefront was an increase in fraud, because of the increase in digital transactions. We leveraged our fraud prevention and detection tools to help clients identify the difference between a legitimate customer and a fraudster by harnessing the power of data and advanced analytics. Putting the right fraud detection tools in place helps businesses prevent future fraud losses and ensures that legitimate customers have a seamless, positive experience.
Another impact of COVID-19 has been the microchip shortage, which has really changed the way the industry markets. With the inventory shortages the industry is currently facing, marketers need the ability to constantly reassess their objectives, and leverage data to help identify what messages and channels are the most effective. Amid the chip shortage, are manufacturers and dealers looking to continue to grow awareness, or identify which channels give greater ROI? Our data helps marketers measure the performance of their marketing campaigns enabling them to optimize their marketing plans and maximize their budget, no matter the size, or the challenging environment they’re managing.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
With the onset of the economic recession caused by COVID-19, many people wanted to turn to historic data to try and predict the impact. But the reality was COVID-19 was unlike anything else we had experienced in our lifetime, so historic data couldn’t be as informative as it had with other downturns. So, we were able to come in and help clients leverage current data to better understand the state of the market and manage through the turbulent time by making data-driven decisions.
One of the ways we did this early on in the pandemic was to leverage our vehicles in operation database to better understand what essential vehicles were still on the road during the shutdowns, so that the aftermarket could better understand what vehicles would still be needing service to keep them operational. But this kind of assessment isn’t just valuable for the aftermarket — for any auto player, understanding what is on the road and what is being registered can give them more insight into their market and make more strategic decisions as a result.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
The agility with which our team responded to the pandemic has been key to creating helpful solutions for the current climate. We introduced the Experian Automotive Market Insights dashboard, which gives the industry free access to ongoing automotive trends. The dashboard includes numerous automotive statistics, such as vehicle registrations and finance metrics, layered in with economic indicators such as average interest rate, to help lenders and dealers identify correlations between economic factors and vehicle registrations, which can help them anticipate changes that may be on the horizon.
Another focus was ensuring lenders had as much information as possible to make the right lending decisions, amid the economic uncertainty. One way we did this was through enhancements to Experian Boost, which allows consumers to add on-time payments for things like utility and telecom to their credit report for free. While we launched Experian Boost in 2019, more recently, we began empowering consumers to contribute streaming service payments to create an even clearer picture of how they are managing their monthly payments. Additionally, we introduced a new suite of real-time income and employment verification solutions, called Experian Verify. The solution provides lenders with near instant access to verified income and employment information. Solutions like these ensure that lenders can create a more complete picture of a consumer’s financial situation and ensure that lenders aren’t excluding consumers from the lending ecosystem who could successfully repay loans.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
I think what has been most interesting to me is the speed and resiliency of the automotive industry. I was surprised — but really shouldn’t have been — at how quickly our employees have adapted to work from home. Everyone was dedicated to figuring out their new working situations and never dropping a beat in creating solutions to help our clients manage, too. We have been effective delivering insights to the industry through new technologies. As we’ve seen the industry rebound, we know it’s another testament to how resilient the auto industry is, but also a reminder that we need to continue to have agility as we manage the current environment.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Leaders need to stay grounded with a focus on their people. Disruption can cause tension and uncertainty, and employees need to feel heard and appreciated to manage through that and deliver the best results. Lead with empathy, focus on your people, and ensure they have the resources they need, and success will follow.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Consistent communication is vital to boosting morale and ensuring people feel connected to the team. This could be in the form of business updates, regular messages from senior leadership, or weekly conference calls to catch up and lend an ear.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focus on the customer and solving their problems. As we go through turbulent times, the needs of any of our customers, whether manufacturers, lenders, dealers, or aftermarket professionals, may change. To be successful, be agile enough to evolve solutions as quickly as the industry is changing.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One critical mistake I’ve seen numerous times is not understanding the competitive landscape, which will help determine what problem the new technology is there to solve. This will result in spinning your wheels for no reason, because you’re not understanding the problems that need to be solved.
Another set of mistakes I’ve seen is an unwillingness to try something new, or not investing the time necessary to learn how to use technology to its full potential. Often, and we see this a lot with our various data-driven solutions, technology can require a new way of thinking, and sometimes people will think it’s easier to stick with the status quo and not try something new, or only give it a half-hearted attempt and not invest the time to understand the application of new technologies. This ultimately drives to another mistake: not being okay with failing. Sometimes a technology may not deliver the resources you needed, and that’s okay. It’s still important to try new things to ensure that the company is looking to adapt to new technologies and won’t get left behind.
Being willing to fail is critical to creating a culture of innovation, where people are willing to try new things that may create better results than legacy systems. Technology will always evolve. The key is to continually strive to solve your customer’s needs, and that’s the attitude that will drive most new initiatives.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen to your customers to understand their needs and anticipate any potential changes. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, we know that the landscape is still dynamic, with change happening quickly. Being able to anticipate changes will make your company more valuable to clients.
- Utilize outside market research to validate your position. It’s important to have outside research because it can provide an unbiased snapshot as to how your company contends with the competition. Research can also help refine your solutions to make them more effective and help identify the potential for new solutions to address additional customer pain points.
- Communicate regularly with your team so they understand the new direction. We made communication a priority when the company first moved to being fully remote at the onset of the pandemic, to ensure that the team understood the direction we were headed, and how they all played a critical role in the company’s success. As a result, we were able to pivot faster, and provide refreshed solutions to meet client needs.
- Try new things and be okay with failure, however, fail fast and move on. We don’t want our teams to be afraid of trying new things, because these ideas ultimately bring about innovation and, in many cases, lead to new solutions. But sometimes they don’t — and being able to identify when it’s time to move on from something new is critical to ensure your company doesn’t get stuck in a nonfunctional situation.
- Create or expand your culture of innovation. At the end of the day, to stay relevant, you need to create a culture of innovation. Building this kind of culture doesn’t happen overnight, but with intentionality, it can reap large rewards. At Experian, we focus on building a culture of innovation in many ways, including things like Employee Resource Groups. These groups create an opportunity for networking across business units to happen organically, and we often see ideas sparked and innovation come out of these relationships as a result.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is good above the number” has been my mantra for some time, especially in sales. How I interpret it is: work hard and do what you have to do to get the job done. If you work hard, things will fall into place. But, if you lose sight of your goal and begin chasing it, you may do things that are out of character and stress and press as a result. Ultimately, a strong work ethic goes a long way, and it’ll help you meet your objectives.
How can our readers further follow your work?